OPINION: Stunts that go far beyond the photo call of duty

When I heard that Gordon Brown and Tony Blair's spin doctors had organised a joint briefing to show just how united they were, my reaction was the same as the rest of the cynical Westminster scribes: we didn't believe it. As PR disasters go, though, it wasn't all that bad, partly because there are enough lobby hacks prepared to write the opposite to what they know to be the truth because of the line their paper takes on the euro.

The truth of the matter is that the joint briefing was arranged after Brown rightly went ballistic at the way the media had interpreted bringing the Cabinet into the euro decision. This was spun by Number 10 as a victory for Blair, though Brown's decision to give his colleagues a million-word volume was a magnificent PR stunt - designed to show how much more the Chancellor knows about the euro than the Cabinet does.

The 'joint briefing' was, of course, a PR disaster. All it did was reinforce the idea of a rift between the country's two most powerful politicians.

You would have thought that they'd have learned the lesson by now. I was personally involved in quite a few New Labour stunts designed to show unity at the top, the first being the photo call between Brown and Blair the morning after the now legendary 'Granita' dinner that decided the leadership succession following John Smith's death. Despite Brown falling on his sword to become the junior partner in their relationship, Blair was very reluctant to take part in the photo call. He realised even then what the message from the picture would be: here are two men of equal stature. Blair - as the next leader - didn't like that much. Indeed, he did everything he could to get out of the photo-op and only did it because Brown insisted.

The next time I was involved in organising a Brown-Blair photo opportunity it was at the insistence of Blair's office. Now in Government, Number 10 was worried about the way Brown-Blair split stories were damaging Blair, and thought that TV pictures of both men enjoying a beer watching the football World Cup would show how close they were. Actually, at that time, the two were still on fairly good terms and, although the punters watching the news may not have given it a moment's thought, Westminster insiders thought the whole thing a bit odd.

They were right to. Blair has little or no interest in football and, as soon as the cameras had gone, he went back to his flat next door - no doubt to watch Panorama with Peter Mandelson, who had come up with the crazy idea in the first place.

The next silly photo call, and undoubtedly the daftest of the lot, was one involving the twice-disgraced former minister himself. When Mandelson was appointed to the Cabinet at the DTI, Number 10 suggested that I organise a photo call with the new minister and the Chancellor. I phoned Alastair Campbell and told him exactly what I thought of the idea. 'Everyone will just laugh - no one will believe they are friends and it will be counter-productive,' I told Blair's spin doctor. 'Yes, I know, but Tony wants it, so that's it,' came the reply. I suppose I could have told him to get stuffed, as I had on previous occasions, but this was just a row over a photo call so we went ahead. As I predicted, everyone inside Westminster thought this was the funniest thing since Prescott told the Today programme he was middle class. Brown's body language is legendary, and the TV pictures of the two ministers together wouldn't have fooled the average punter, who knows nothing about politics.

My advice to Numbers 10 and 11 is to stop treating us like idiots and don't give us any more silly stunts.

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